Over the past year
China has become a lot more aggressive, vocally and militarily, in asserting its ownership of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Currently China has warships guarding all the disputed areas in the South China Sea and Scarborough Shoal is a recent addition to the areas under armed guard. Since 2012 China has periodically posted warships (coastguard or navy) to enforce their claims and now that process is complete. It happened gradually. In 2017 China built an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal, which is 220 kilometers from one of the main Filipino islands (Palawan) and 650 kilometers from Chinese territory (Hainan Island) and according to international law (and a recent international court decision) is Filipino. The Chinese say they have prior claim to most of the South China Sea and basically dares the rest of the world to try and stop them. This makes sense to most Chinese because the Chinese have long called China Zhongguo, which is usually translated into English as “middle kingdom”. But a more literal and accurate translation is “everything under the heavens.” Until the 21st century this mainly meant adjacent land areas. But now China points out that “everything” means the South China Sea as well.
In the last few days, the online (Information War) aspect of the South China Sea conflict has become particularly heated. China is usually the aggressor online and in news media. This time the remarks of senior Filipino officials demonstrate that the Philippines government is nearly unanimous in believing the Chinese assurance and promises cannot be trusted. While the Philippines admits it cannot stand up to China in a war, they can use Chinese tactics and disrupt Chinese military and civilian operations in the South China Sea. Other nations suffering from the Chinese efforts to take control of the entire South China Sea are similarly fed up and going Chinese on the Chinese. Filipinos are also angry at other forms of Chinese deception and outright lies. For example, China promised large economic investments in the Philippines and more Filipinos being allowed to work in China. Both of these “gifts” never came through. The promised foreign worker angle backfired big time as the government allowed more Chinese to enter Philippines and many were not the expected tourists or legal entrepreneurs, but gangsters who have become a growing problem. The most recent backfire was Chinese developed covid19 vaccine that were provided to the Philippines. This backfired when it was discovered that China was charging the Philippines three or more times per dose as other customers in east Asia and Africa were paying. Moreover, the Chinese vaccine turned out to be much less effective than Western vaccines also available to the Philippines. Worse, all these negotiations and delays in Chinese deliveries have meant that the Philippines will be the last nation in the region to receive enough vaccine to suppress the covid19 threat.
The Philippines appears to get most of the unwanted Chinese attention in the South China Sea because the Philippines has the most to lose. In terms of land area, the 7,600 islands that comprise the Philippines amount to only 300,000 square kilometers (120,000 square miles) of land area. Compare this to China, with 9.6 million square kilometers of land. According to international law, the Philippines controls (via its EEZ or Exclusive Economic Zone) water areas covering 2.26 million square kilometers. By the same standards the Chinese EEZ waters comprises 877,000 square kilometers. The Philippines is also the weakest (in military terms) nation China is seizing territory from and their mutual defense treaty with the United States is not always adequate to deal with the Chinese tactics. Moreover, the American government can change readily every four years because of presidential elections. The current U.S. president is seen as less steadfast in dealing with China. So far that has not been the case, but the new American government has only been in power since January 2021 and so far pledges to continue supporting resistance to Chinese South China Sea claims.
Playing With Fatal Confrontation
There’s one Chinese tactic that other nations have not copied.
The Chinese naval militia has been a major factor in Chinese intimidation operations in the South China Sea. This militia has been around since the 1950s but never used this aggressively. For example, during the first three months of 2019 China deployed 900 navy, coast guard and naval militia ships around Pagasa Island to block access to fishing areas that Filipinos have been using for centuries. International law makes it clear that these are Filipino waters but the Chinese naval effort, and base constructed on Pagasa, challenge Filipino ownership blatantly and often physically. The Philippines is joining other nations in sending out their own coast guard and navy ships to protect their fishing boats using Chinese tactics. This is leading to more confrontations between mutually hostile warships. Everyone is under orders to not open fire, but everything else is allowed, like physically blocking movement, even at risk of collision. Another threatening tactic is to turn on fire-control radars. Eventually one of these confrontations will accidentally turn lethal. In some parts of the South China Sea and outside the West Pacific, Chinese intruders are met with armed force and the locals open fire. Vietnam has been on the losing end of this sort of thing several times and by the time the Philippines were confronted by Chinese claims, they realized they were even less able that Vietnam to oppose the Chinese with force.
Since 2015 China has hired several hundred Chinese fishing boats and their crews as a part-time naval militia to conduct a blockage of bits of land in the South China Sea that the Philippines physically occupies, hoping to block supplies and force the Filipinos to evacuate these outposts so that China can take possession. The Chinese fishermen don’t mind the militia work, seeing it as something of a paid vacation with overtones of patriotic service to the state. The militia boats are not true volunteers. When the government “requests” a Chinese fishing boat work for the militia the boat owner complies. Sometimes boat owners grumble when they are called up during a prime fishing season, but refusal is not an option and they make the best of it. For many fishing companies the militia assignments enable them to make some money during periods when there is less work and boats are idle. This is more common with the Chinese fishing fleet because since the 1980s this fleet of ocean-going boats has grown of inconsequential to one of the largest in the world.
Most fishing boats in the South China Sea are trawler type boats. These boats deploy their nets, move through an area containing a lot of fish, then haul their catch on board and into a refrigerated compartment. Many of the Chinese militia boats are formally called "freezer trawlers." These ships are up to 100 meters (320 feet) long and have facilities onboard to store hundreds of tons of frozen fish. These ships normally stay at sea months at a time and have crews of 14-30.
The number of Chinese trawlers has expanded enormously since 1985 when there were only 13. Now there are over 2,400 of them operating worldwide. China helped with this expansion by subsidizing ocean-going fishing boats. Those subsidies have since been withdrawn but meanwhile, the number of larger (than 100 meter) freezer trawlers has grown and these are meant for use in far distant waters.
The Filipino government recently told its fishing boats to ignore the three month-long Chinese Summer fishing ban on the South China Sea. In 1999 China began imposing this ban in areas around the world where the growing Chinese trawler fleet had been largely responsible for depleting available quantities of species particularly popular in China. Such bans have become increasingly common as the Chinese fishing fleet grew. The Chinese trawlers have a reputation for ignoring moratoriums imposed by other nations. The Chinese government did nothing about that until species that were particularly popular in China were depleted worldwide. The Chinese ban applied to all nations but only China was able to compel Chinese boats to comply. China was also able to compel everyone to comply in undisputed Chinese EEZs. The South China Sea now has China disputing EEZs belonging to other nations and the other nations are increasingly fighting back any way they can. Flouting the Chinese Summer fishing ban, often using Chinese intimidation tactics, has been adopted by more non-Chinese trawler operators.
May 3, 2021: China complained that its two aircraft carrier task forces (formed around the carriers Liaoning and Shandong) have been “disrupted” by an American destroyer shadowing both task forces for three weeks and was continuing to do so. The two task forces have each, in turn, spent several weeks at sea, deliberately visiting the maritime areas where China now claims possession, including the South China Sea.
April 23, 2021: In the south (Sulu province) troops encountered and killed two Abu Sayyaf gunmen. One of the dead was the brother of a notorious Abu Sayyaf bomb maker. A growing number of Abu Sayyaf members are surrendering voluntarily, with eleven doing so far this year, prompted by an
amnesty program that makes it possible to return to civilian life if those surrendering have not committed major crimes.
April 22, 2021:
In the south (Zamboanga del Sur province) troops clashed with NPA gunmen, killing two of the leftist rebels and arresting a third. One of the dead was a known NPA leader. This clash is part of a larger campaign to shut down NPA operations in this area, which is just north of Sulu and Basilan, where Abu Sayyaf is under similar pressure. The pressure on NPA has been particularly intense for the last five years and it is believed only about six small groups of NPA rebels are still operational in this province. So far this year the nationwide campaign against the NPA has eliminated 51 NPA members with four killed, five arrested and 42 voluntarily surrendered to qualify for an amnesty program.
April 16, 2021: In the south (Sulu province) troops encountered and killed three Abu Sayyaf gunmen, one of them an Egyptian who was the middleman for getting ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) cash from the Middle East to the Philippines. Abu Sayyaf now considers itself the local ISIL affiliate and one reason for that was ISIL can provide cash and technical experts, not to mention worldwide publicity and a fearsome reputation. It will take time to rebuild that cash pipeline and that will limit Abu Sayyaf terror operations because, like any other terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf has expenses that must be paid it keep the group operational. The Filipino counterterror operations have been increasingly successful in going after those support functions.
Elsewhere in the south (Bukidnon province) troops located and raided an NPA training camp, killing one NPA member while the others go away. Soldiers seized large quantities of weapons, ammo and other supplies. The camp was being used to get members ready for large scale raids on rural construction projects, which are resisting NPA extortion demands. Information on the location of NPA camps, weapons storage sites or covert supporters is increasingly obtained from local civilians or NPA members that surrendered. Because of that more NPA camps are being attacked, weapons storage sites seized and key supporters arrested.
April 10, 2021: In the south (Sulu province) ten Abu Sayyaf members voluntarily surrendered because of the amnesty program, and the increasing pressure from the security forces.
April 9, 2021: The Philippines has invoked its mutual defense treaty with the United States. That treaty, signed right after World War II, considered any assault on Filipino territory an assault on American territory. So far, the U.S. has not gone to war over this because the Chinese have been careful to not fire on any Filipinos. Meanwhile in the South China Sea an American ARP (Amphibious Ready Group) task force that is centered on a smaller (40,000-ton) amphibious LHD (Landing Helicopter Dock) carrier joined with a larger carrier task force that is centered on the larger 104,000-ton Nimitz class carrier. The combined force was there for a week of joint training. The larger nuclear carrier carries 90 aircraft, most of them warplanes while the LHD normally carries 25 helicopters plus six F-35B fighters that can take off and land like a helicopter. A larger number of F-35Cs are on the carrier, which take off with a boost from a catapult and can land on the carrier. The LHD can be equipped with up to twenty F-35Bs and a few helicopters. The Americans have experimented with this and found that it works quite well.